Many would aver instinctively that as people got more packed together in urban spaces, the less close-knit they became. There's more to it, of course, than just a reflexive lurch towards privacy triggered by cheek-by-jowl living conditions. The "kampung spirit" of olden days, that the pioneer generation are not alone in still talking about nostalgically, thrived despite the cramped conditions of makeshift homes. People are less neighbourly now perhaps because their emotional, social and instrumental needs are fulfilled increasingly by links formed outside their neighbourhood - at workplaces, schools, recreational spaces and in cyberspace.
Yet another commissioned study, the latest being a survey by the Housing Board and the National University of Singapore's Centre for Sustainable Asian Cities and Sociology department, has provided further confirmation that interactions tend to be "incidental and minimal" among HDB residents, with few displays of trust among neighbours. What the nation does not know is how to crack the social puzzle, a quandary shared by other cities as well.
Participants from government agencies and educational institutions tried gamely to do so for three days during a recent brainstorming workshop called Build-a-thon. And HDB, together with the Singapore Kindness Movement, earlier asked all and sundry to imagine ways of fostering closer bonding for their Good Neighbours Project. It would be fair to say that such efforts will remain a work in progress given the unceasing metabolic changes of a society challenged by diversity and divergent impulses.
Such trends call for greater support of efforts to close the social gulf that exists in HDB neighbourhoods and elsewhere. The ideal of an enfolding community that seeks to bind immediate neighbours, at the very least, is to be cherished. Neighbours surely ought to do more than just exchange greetings and make small talk, as social bonds might be tested over time by pressures that affect all.
Rather than retreating towards cynicism, it's better to accept that fostering a neighbourly spirit amid urban churn will simply take time. It can be neither contrived nor hurried. And every contribution can help, whether percolated on a micro scale or effected on a larger plane - like plans to create "social linkways" via seats or exhibits along public paths and "neighbourhood incubators" to nudge social interaction.
While aspiring to the pioneer ethic of neighbourliness, one should remain open to new forms of social connections that might develop in the interstices of society. Small trickles of goodwill can also add to the flow towards a city where neighbourliness thrives for its own sake.